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SCI 120: A Watershed Year

Course guide for SCI 120

Steps in Developing a Research Proposal

1) Choose a topic: Reflect on all the things you've learned and talked about this semester, and choose something that interests you!

2) Conduct preliminary research on your topic: See how other scientists have investigated your topic! You can review the scientific literature for a number reasons, including: 

  • Background information on your topic
  • Research Methodology
  • Research Impact

3) Create a research question & thesis: Your research question is a goal for your research. A research question should be substantial enough to form the guiding principle of your paper—but focused enough to guide your research. Alternatively, your  thesis concisely states your initial answer to the main research question. It expresses a debatable idea or claim that you hope to prove through additional research.

4) Determine how your research will be relevant to other scientists: Explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail why it's important.

5) Put it all together!

Conducting Preliminary Research

Scientists use preliminary research to determine what they should study (topic development), how they should study it (methodology), and why it is important to study the thing (research impact).

The purpose of linking your research proposal to other scientific literature is to place your project within the larger conversation of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses.

Reading Scientific Articles

Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process from reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Here are some quick tips on how to interpret a scholarly, scientific article:

  • Don't read the article straight through! To fully interpret the articles findings, it is easier jump around and between sections. A more detailed explanation on how to do this will be provided in class.
  • Bring equipment along for the journey. As you're reading, keep on hand:
    • A scientific dictionary to define words you aren't sure of.
    • Notepaper to keep track of your interpretations
Steps to reading a scientific article
  1. Read the Introduction: A paper's introduction explains the motivation and importance of the research, in addition to providing background information. Read the introduction first to identify:
    1. The research question. What is the guiding question for this paper? 
    2. Background information. What work has been done in this field prior? What are the limitations to the prior work? What, according to the authors, needs to be done next?
    3. The thesis. What are the specific answers the authors are trying to find?
  2. Read the Methods. The Methods section explains how the researchers collected and analyzed data to answer their question. Read the methods section second to identify:
    1. The methodology. How did the authors attempt to find answers to their research question?  
    2. Replication/Relevancy. Is this a study you could replicate? How might you do so? If you did, would it help you to answer your research question?
    3. Credibility: Do the authors' scientific practices seem sound? Why or why not?
  3. Read the Results. The results presents charts, graphs, and data you might need for your research. Don't yet try to understand what the results mean, just write down what they are. While reading the results, pay attention to: 
    1. Significance: Does the reported data have a statistical meaning?
    2. Graphs: Do you understand what the figures mean? What units are used? Do the curves make sense?
    3. Sample Size: Is the study representative?
  4. Read the Conclusion/Discussion/Interpretation. This section summarizes the important results and gives reasons for the authors' conclusions based on the results. While reading this section, identify:
    1. Research Impact: What do the authors think the results mean?
    2. Do you agree with the authors?
    3. Is there anything the authors might have missed? Have they identified means for further study?
  5. Read the Abstract. The abstract tells you briefly what experiment was done and what was found. As you review the authors' summary, ask yourself:
    1. Does the abstract fit with your interpretation of the paper?
    2. Is this study relevant for your research?